Josef Albers was a German painter, color theorist, art and design educator, born in Bottrop, who worked in Germany and the United States. A relatively late starter when he arrived as a student at the Bauhaus aged 32, Josef Albers became the longest serving teacher at the school, before emigrating to the United States, where, through his work at Black Mountain College and Yale, he had a profound impact on the development of arts education in the country.
Along with László Moholy-Nagy, Albers is credited with helping reorient the Bauhaus from its early expressionist and crafts-based focus toward a more thoroughly modernist outlook—a shift neatly summed up by his decision to change the name of one of his primary courses from Principles of Craft to Principles of Design. Following the resignation of Johannes Itten, of whom he had once been a student, Albers began teaching on the Vorkurs (preliminary course) and was concerned to move teaching at the school away from its focus on developing the students’ artistic personalities, believing that “individualism stresses isolation; while the school’s task is to align the individual with contemporary events, with society (state, profession, economy)” (Albers, 2006, p. 156). This motive manifested itself through a pedagogy that emphasized developing the student’s awareness of the particular structural and aesthetic qualities of different materials—with a view to heightening their sensitivity to the world around them. His teaching on the Vorkurs is noted for having attempted to implement a more comprehensive visual training than that of Itten or Moholy—and as such, was arguably most faithful to the Bauhaus ideal of providing fully holistic education in the visual arts.
It is possible to see the educational philosophy of John Dewey reflected in a statement that Albers made while still at the Bauhaus: “Learning is better than teaching, because it is more intense: the more is being taught, the less can be learned” (Albers, 2006, p. 155). They met each other at Black Mountain College, though Dewey’s ideas are known to have been familiar to many at the Bauhaus. Like Dewey, Albers asserted the value of direct experience, and firmly believed that practice should take primacy over any presupposed theory of art or design. His primary course at Black Mountain College was called Werklehre, that is, learning through working or by doing. This was always to take precedence over “learning through reading,” the benefits of which he remained skeptical. At Black Mountain, Albers was given the opportunity to further extend this philosophy into practice over the course of sixteen years—where he taught courses in drawing, design, color, and painting—and where the nonhierarchical structure and relatively undefined curriculum allowed scope to place experiment and individual discovery as the primary goal of the learning process.
His two most visible legacies today are closely related: the series of paintings titled Homage to the Square and the text book Interaction of Colour “a record of an experimental way of studying color and teaching color,” which was published in 1963 during his tenure at Yale. Beginning in 1950 and continuing up until his death, Albers painted more than a thousand Homages—all roughly similar compositions of three or four different colored squares set inside each other on a square canvas, made from paint applied directly from the tube. As with many of the exercises shown in Interaction, the goal was to demonstrate “the relativity and instability of color”—how “experience teaches that in visual perception there is a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect” (Albers, 2006, p. 2). Discussing the deeper motives behind this work, Albers once stated: “When you really understand that each color is changed by a changed environment, you eventually find that you have learned about life as well as about color” (Albers, 2006, p. 78).